By Susan Moores, MS, RD
"Is it sustainable?" It's an increasingly important question to ask when it comes to agriculture and how we eat. In agriculture, the concept of sustainability is applied toward the production of food or other plant or animal products using farming techniques and practices that protect public health, communities, the environment and the welfare of animals. Sustainable agriculture enables us to produce healthful food without compromising future generations' ability to do the same.
Sustainable eating is about choosing foods that are healthful to our environment and our bodies. "It's about nourishing ourselves wholly and completely," says Kate Geagan, MS, RD, author of Go Green, Get Lean, "providing pleasure but preserving the food system for the future."
Why Care about Sustainability?
There are many benefits to moving toward more sustainable eating, says Diana Dyer, MS, RD, an organic farmer. "Sustainable agriculture and eating are regenerative. They lead to healthy, thriving individuals and communities, and better, more balanced ecosystems." According to Dyer, sustainable agriculture and eating practices:
- Improve the economic health and vitality of communities.
- Reduce the use of limited natural resources, such as fossil fuels.
- Protect the environment from chemicals and practices that harm farmer and consumer health.
- Preserve the diversity of plants and animals and nutrients in soil.
- Encourage optimal nutrition through more naturally nutrient-dense foods.
Tips for Sustainable Eating
Unless you're a farmer, the best way to support the benefits of sustainable farming is to eat sustainably. To do so, Geagan suggests taking stock in your current eating habits, which foods you buy and how you make food decisions. "That becomes your starting point. From there you can do many things to support good growing practices and smart food production."
Geagan and Dyer offer these tips to get started:
Shop locally. Buy foods at local farmers markets. Local farmers are committed to their communities, says Dyer. "If you're shopping at a farmers market, the farmers who are there are likely 'neighbors.' The money you spend at the market stays in your community." Dyer mentions the "local economic multiplier effect" — an often-referenced theory of the benefits a local economy receives when recirculating capital by sourcing locally. She gives the example, "If every family in Michigan spent $10 a week at a farmers market, it would keep $40 million dollars in the state, which would otherwise quickly move out of the state. Each dollar circulates three to seven times before it moves out."
Grow something. It could be herbs in a pot, tomatoes on a patio or a small plot in your yard. Not much gives you a greater appreciation for what it takes to create food than to grow your own. You understand the multitude of factors involved in making plants thrive, the attention needed to successfully grow food and how precarious the process can be. Those insights will likely influence how you buy, use and dispose of food.
Initiate conversations about food. Talk with the farmers at your market, personnel at your grocery store and restaurateurs, or the growing number of people who are paying attention to how foods get on their plates. You can discover new tips, learn about new resources and find more local, sustainably-minded food producers and providers.
Eat seasonally. Blueberries don't grow in Montana during January, yet you can still buy "fresh" at this time. This means they're likely coming from far, far away. When possible, focus on foods that are available in season where you live and you'll be supporting sustainability.
Tap your tap. Liquids are some of the heaviest items to ship around the country, says Geagan, and lots of fossil fuel is needed to tote them. "Step away from packaged waters and drinks when possible. You save several natural resources that would otherwise go into transportation and storage, as well as handling package waste," she says.
Retool your grocery list. Think bulk foods, more minimally processed foods and more plant-based meals. Doing so translates into less packaging and waste, less energy used to produce certain foods and fewer artificial ingredients — those not found in nature — and chemicals in the food system.
Vote with your wallet and your fork. There's no better way to affect the direction of our food system and what grocers, restaurateurs and food companies produce and sell than to influence their bottom line. Ask your food providers to support local farmers, local producers and sustainable agriculture. Show support through your buying decisions.
Health doesn't happen in the health care system nor does it happen by accident, says Geagan, "It's what you do in your kitchen and how you intentionally eat 365 days a year that does." Dyer agrees, "Food is a connector in life and can add significantly to life's satisfaction. There's great pride in knowing that . . . you actively support sustainable agriculture and eat sustainably."
Reviewed August 2013
Susan Moores, MS, RD, is a nutrition consultant in St. Paul, Minn., who works with grocery stores and food businesses to help consumers eat healthfully.